Knowledge Management: End Users, Customers, or Clients. What’s the Difference?



April 08, 2017

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about the term “end user,” which is how most special librarians and knowledge management professionals refer to those who benefit from their services, content and products. We believe there are fundamental differences between “end users,” “customers” and “clients”—which if recognized, accommodated and leveraged, can significantly impact the library’s role and perception within an organization.

Rinse and repeat

In comparison to customers and clients, end users may have no connection to the team, person or organization delivering service—they are simply sitting in front of computers, receiving information or content, using it if it’s relevant, and moving on. The interaction is limited to a transaction, and the transaction will be repeated if it’s considered of value.

Google has end users—they very successfully provide supply in response to demand, but there is no relationship. They collect a lot of data on what their end users do on their platform and use it to tune their offerings, but engagement really doesn’t happen.

I like you, but not in that way…

Customers also experience transactional interactions with suppliers—for example, regularly going to a grocery store that is in the neighborhood. They may have a preference for one grocery store over another, and they might have a passing acquaintance with the employees. They might even request that specific items be stocked, they get introduced to new products, and perhaps they even refer their friends and neighbors to the store. Again, though, there is no significant connection or relationship.

We’re in this for the long term

Clients, on the other hand, have a long standing professional relationship with their service providers—a relationship that is deep and based on a great deal of knowledge about one another; a true partnership. The model for this is found in “professional services” firms such as management consultancies, law firms, accounting firms and some technology providers, where the engagement history for a single client often covers decades and is locked in for many decades to come.

Clients are also customers and end users. Cultivating a long term relationship without short term gains simply isn’t practical. Make a library end user happy today by solving an immediate problem (crisis averted?!) and pushing highly relevant content to them via RSS, and by understanding their projects, subject areas, and professional development goals – so you can provide consultative expertise along the way. That turns an end user into a customer, and ultimately into a client. And that concept leads us to: marketing.

Are you talking to me?

It’s necessary to market to end users, customers and clients from a completely different mindset. If they are interested in transforming their “end users” into “clients,” service providers such as librarians must interact with them quite differently, during that evolution and beyond. In sales there is the concept of “assume the close.” It’s rather like the author John Irving, who always writes the final chapter of a book first. If you know you want your organizational colleagues to be library clients rather than simply end users or customers, cultivate that relationship right from the beginning, and continually, even while responding to one-off requests and pushing relevant information to their desktops. Ask yourself, “how will we get there?” and include the below in your knowledge management strategy.

  • Learn as much as you can about their projects and desired outcomes; take an active interest
  • Build your collection with content that supports practices and functional areas
  • Ask for their advice and guidance about your services and your own professional development
  • Stay visible, stay innovative, stay proactive

Where will it all end?

The result? Loyalty, advocacy, great ideas about new services and products, appropriate resource allocation, and a pivotal role within the organization. That’s the difference between relying on clients rather than end users or customers to help you build and maintain a great service organization.

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